Art Works Blog

Postcard from Ohio

Washington, DC

Here I am at the Wexner Arts Center with Sherri Geldin, the center's director, Dr. Gordon Gee, OSU president, and Charlotte Kessler from our National Council of the Arts. Photo by A.J. Zanyk

I started off this week with a trip to Cincinnati and Columbus, Ohio. This was quite a trip! It started with a speech I gave at the International Economic Development Council Conference, which was a gathering of economic specialists from all over the country and around the world. Of course, I was there to talk about the role of the arts in economic development. The arts are a part of the real economy, and if you?re talking about coming out of a severe recession, the arts have an important role to play in that.

I spoke right after Dr. Gordon Gee, president of Ohio State University. What a charismatic speaker! It?s great to see Dr. Gee and the university so committed to the larger arts community. Ohio State is very interested in getting outside of its own confines and extending itself into into the community. So it was a very stimulating exchange and a good gathering. I was happy to be a part of it and to speak for the role of the arts.

We then went on to tour the Columbus College of Art and Design with Dennison Griffith, who runs that place and is a very winning and charismatic character. It was especially fun for me because one of their art exhibits was a big twisting stack of old Artforum magazines. My brother Knight is Artforum?s publisher so it was neat to see his magazines made into a work of art. Then we toured the Columbus Metropolitan Library with Patrick Losinski. This library has for 2010 been voted the number one library in the country. And you can see why---it?s a very colorful, welcoming, life-filled, spacious library where they?re engaging all the latest technology. People come in there to do research, work on their resumes, or whatever it is and have access to all the information they need. It?s a very inspiring place, and we had a lunch there with arts leaders of Columbus. One of the highlights of that was reconnecting with my old friend Bill Connor, who runs CAPA, a group of theaters in Columbus.

We later toured the Lincoln Theater, which is a fantastic rehab-renovation of a theater that is the linchpin for the renovation of the neighborhood. Columbus is really committed to this type of redevelopment. It was great to see that theater not only brought back to its original and beautiful condition, but also being a catalyst for the development of a neighborhood.

My host throughout most of this trip was Charlotte Kessler, who is one of our National Council on the Arts members---a very dedicated and engaged council member. This is her hometown, and she guided us around the whole day. She and her husband Jack hosted a dinner for us at Lindsay?s in Columbus and that was a great dinner. We had some of the top business leaders there, and I was happy to be able to talk with them on the theme of creative economy and how it can be a catalyst for economic development. You know, when artists get together in arts clusters, they change places, they?re placemakers. Certainly the business leaders that I met with in Columbus get that. I think that our Art Works story is really getting some traction in the business community. I think that business people see anecdotally---and, of course, we?re getting more data all of the time---how the arts can be transformative. Again, there was a lot of back and forth about what?s going on at the NEA, what?s going on with the arts in Columbus. They?re doing a lot and there?s already a strong and vibrant arts community there.

I also toured the Wexner Arts Center with Sherri Geldin, and it?s a very interesting place. It really is a center for all kinds of art---visual arts and performing arts. I had another meeting there with President Gee of Ohio State, who is very supportive of the Wexner which is a kind of transitional point between the university and the community at large.

The next day we were in Cincinnati, which is almost a second home for me. My best friend, Rick Steiner, grew up and lives there. We started with a visit to the School for the Creative and Performing Arts, which they tell me is the only school like it in the country. It?s a fully integrated public arts school grades K-12. It?s not a charter or private school, although it has a lot of private support. Kids audition to go there, and it?s a real draw for the town and kids from the area. The Mayerson Foundation is one of the big supporters of it, and it was great that I was able to tour the school and theater with Manny Mayerson, who?s an old friend from Cincinnati and a major philanthropist in that city.

Then we had a luncheon with the arts funders and representatives of the arts organizations in Cincinnati during which we had a really good Q&A and back and forth, talking about the arts scene there. Jack Rouse was there, and he is one of the visionaries of the arts field. In fact, Jack accompanied us on a lot of our tour that day of the Over-the-Rhine area. I?ve visited Cincinnati more than sixty times and I?ve never visited this area because it was always a part of the city you just didn?t go to. There was drug dealing on every corner and high violence. Now, it?s a transformed place, and the arts are the catalyst, there?s no doubt about it. In fact, I was saying that Over-the-Rhine is one of the prime exhibits for the NEA as we start showcasing what the arts can do. We want to point to that and shine a big spotlight on it. It?s really neat to see what was going on there, all the galleries and artist residences and other art spaces.

In Over-the-Rhine, we met with Eric Vosmeier, the producing director of the Know Theatre whose theater is one of the catalysts of the rehabilitation of the area. The theater?s tickets used to be $30 or $40 and they would discount them all over the place and give some of them away for free. They found out that they were getting an average price of $12 per ticket, so they said, ?Why not charge $12, and have everybody be able to buy an affordable ticket and go to the theater?? And it?s working---attendance has been up. It?s just really great to see what?s going on there.

That afternoon, there was a panel that was very well-attended. I?d say there were a couple of hundred people there. Jack was on that panel along with Mary McCullough Hudson, who?s the chairman of the ArtsWave group, the local association of arts funders. Lt. Colonel Michael Cureton was also there on the panel. He?s the Assistant Police Chief in Cincinnati and talked about the role of arts in public safety. He said when you have arts in the neighborhood, the crime rate declines, people feel free to walk the streets, and it?s safer. So the arts are a big element in improving public safety. It was great to have him on the panel and hear that.

A great highlight for me was being introduced by Bob Castellini, who is the owner of the Cincinnati Reds. He was my competitor for the team about five years ago when I had a group that was bidding for it. The introduction was amazing; it was the warmest and most personal introduction I?ve had since I?ve been on this job. We had a very engaged and lively panel discussion with questions from the audience. (And of course, the highest of the high points, we went to the Reds game that night, and, as luck would have it, this was the night they clutched the National League Central!)

I really think Columbus and Cincinnati both have a lot to teach us. I think in Columbus we saw the degree to which a major university can engage a community, especially in regards to the arts. In Cincinnati we saw what arts can do to transform places. One of the points that Jack Rouse made at the panel was that we can?t just talk to ourselves and to each other about the arts. We have to get our story out into the larger community, which means that arts organizations have to organize, have to speak to each other, and have to become a political force. One of the neat things about Cincinnati is that the arts organizations do collaborate and cooperate and talk to each other. When they do, a lot more can be accomplished.

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